Benedict Andrews’s Una concerns a woman who was sexually abused when she was 13, and it gives the audience a taste of the manipulation she experienced by making it unclear if anything her abuser says is the truth. The film is set 15 years after Una last saw Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), and more than a decade since the man, now 55, was released from prison, where he was sent for statutory rape. Una (Rooney Mara), now 28, confronts him at his job inside a warehouse. In David Harrower’s 2005 play, Blackbird, from which the film is adapted, Una and Ray talk it out for 90 minutes in a break room, but here Andrews and Harrower (who also wrote the screenplay) open up the source material, allowing the characters to wander deeper into the building and, in turn, their memories and the feelings they conjure.
Una and Ray revisit, in fractured scenes, the brief time they were together, from courtship to separation. She accuses him of abuse; he pleads that he really loved her. She calls him a pedophile; he says he felt that way toward only her. She accuses him of abandoning her when they ran away together; he insists it was all a misunderstanding. Una adds a subplot about corporate downsizing at Ray’s work, which provides co-workers (including one played by Riz Ahmed) to break up the central conversation. But mostly the film escapes the confined theatricality of the warehouse’s hidden corners by indulging in copious flashbacks (in which Ruby Stokes plays the much younger Una), robbing the source material of its central provocation. When Ray and Una just talk about their past, you start to wonder if they did have a sincere relationship, that it wasn’t as depraved as it sounds—that maybe there was even something almost, if not quite, normal about it. But when you see Ben Mendelsohn ogling a 13-year-old, the moment is unambiguously immoral.
The film gives Una a little more agency, but director Benedict Andrews often invalidates such empowerment.
It doesn’t help that the casting is so on the nose. Jeff Daniels has played Ray on stage, most recently in last year’s Broadway production, using his ordinary schlubiness to allow the character appear less threatening, making you wonder if Ray really wasn’t as bad as he seemed. Mendelsohn, in contrast, has an inherent menace behind his ice-blue eyes. His trim haircut and buttoned shirt in Una aren’t fooling anyone. Michelle Williams played Una on Broadway, stripping away the girl-next-door charm she exploited for Dawson’s Creek to get at Una’s fundamental damage. But for Mara, it’s right there on her face, as plain as her nose. Both Mara and Mendelsohn fit these characters too well, playing toward type rather than complicating the story by playing against it.
Harrower’s screenplay gives Una a little more agency. She walks away at the end (unless you think she’s actually running away), and the film now bears her name, giving the character some authority over the story. Andrews, however, often invalidates such empowerment. He twice shows Una topless, once in the shower and once post-coitus, and it feels unnecessarily prurient toward the character, a victim of statutory rape, to abase her body the way Ray once did. Blackbird is shocking, challenging our innate moral revulsion at adults having sex with pubescent girls, but Una makes the audience luridly watch its unholy courtship, bathed in bright light. The film is less provocative than leering, as well as overly literal, retaining much of the original dialogue while turning it into narration that describes the flashback images.
Una ends inside Ray’s home, at a party he’s hosting with his wife, Yvonne (Natasha Little), with a shocking twist—or not. The film, like the play, ends with a taste of psychological abuse, leaving you feeling something like the 13-year-old or 28-year-old Una, unsure if you’ve been lied to or told the truth by a man you want to trust. Clues throughout, in the text and the performances, suggest either, which means you can never really know for sure—providing a devastating glimpse into the epistemological horror of Una’s life.